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When I reread the letters for around the fifth time, I became aware of a simmering tension between the two men. One obstacle to writing a book about a comic actor like Groucho is that you unwittingly absorb the enthusiastic, celebratory tone in which many entertainment figures are biographized. The screen persona is so strong that, no matter how scrupulous you try to be, you end up collapsing the real person into the persona that sent you looking for the real person in the first place. And often, with actors, there is barely a real person to be found. When we hear or read the utterances of a celebrity, the words bounce off the public persona and create something like the loud interfering feedback from a microphone. It took me a while to connect Groucho’s words to his actual life.

But this became easier once I realized that the work was much darker than is commonly perceived, and that there was an almost seamless continuity between the life and the work. Groucho was driven by shame about his lack of formal education, having dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He had also been traumatized by catching gonorrhea from a prostitute while on the road at the age of fifteen. Reading his correspondence with his demons in mind, I gradually understood that what appeared to be harmless sarcasm was really a mordant sincerity...

The Fraught Friendship of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx : The New Yorker

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